Cumberland Times-News

June 9, 2012

Is this the tree on which money grows?

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— During a bus trip with the Mountainside Marine Detachment to the air and space museum near Washington, we stopped in Hagerstown to eat breakfast.

When we got back on the bus, I called out to my friends:

“I found it! I found the place where Obama and O’Malley think money grows!” (Some people call them “Owe-bama” and “Owe-Malley.” Others seem to think they can tax and spend us into prosperity.)

There was a chorus of “Where? Where is it?”

I told them, “Over there where that big green sign says ‘Dollar Tree’!”

Judging from their reaction, they were all taxpayers.

The newspaper recently received a letter to the editor from a woman who gave her address as Handover, Md. Further review indicated she was referring to Hanover, Md.

It’s too bad there is no Handover, Md. A city with that name would be the perfect location for Maryland’s state capital because that’s what Maryland’s state government expects its citizens to do — Handover their money.

An e-mail that went around recently shows Gov. Martin O’Malley’s smiling face with the caption, “Welcome To Maryland! What’s In Your Wallet?” (Wouldn’t you love to see a commercial in which the Vikings are frolicking in the state capitol building’s legislative chambers? They couldn’t possibly wreak more havoc than some of the people who are paid to be there.)

I can laugh about this because I moved from Maryland to West Virginia several years ago, after my father died, to live in the house where I grew up. It’s paid for, it’s comfortable, and it’s not in Cumberland — where my property taxes might be three times what they are in Keyser (depending on the neighborhood).

Upon moving to West Virginia, I got an immediate raise of $22 a week in the form of lower state income tax withholding. I can buy a lot of gasoline for $22 a week (although not nearly as much as I could in 2005).

All that said, West Virginia is by no means a place where you can go to be safe from taxes. West Virginia has taxes lurking in places no furriner would suspect.

West Virginians pay a personal property tax of $25 a year for each dog they own. So far as I know, cats are not subject to personal property taxes, at least not in Mineral County (where I live).

Cars, motorcycles and four-wheelers also are subject to personal property taxes, the amount depending upon the book value. You know the tax you pay when you buy and title your car? In Maryland, you pay it once. In West Virginia, you basically pay it every year.

Marylanders do not pay personal property taxes on their personal vehicles. This is why, when some Marylanders move to West Virginia to escape Maryland’s taxes, they keep their cars registered in Maryland in an attempt to avoid West Virginia’s taxes.

That’s risky. Some West Virginia counties (including Mineral) reward folks for ratting out people who move to the state, but don’t transfer their tags. Frankly, I can’t blame anyone for snitching. If I’m going to have to pay the personal property tax, so should everybody else.

My car is 10 years old. If I had a newer car, it’s conceivable that I would pay more taxes on it than I do on my house. (That said, the state will give me a substantial property tax break on my house when I turn 65.)

In Maryland, you have a car inspected when you buy it. In West Virginia, you have it inspected every year — for a fee.

West Virginia municipalities levy a business and occupation tax upon the businesses that are located within their borders — the so-called B&O Tax. (When I was younger, I thought this was a tax on the railroad.) It’s substantial enough to make some people set up shop outside the city limits.

Where Maryland taxes big chunks out of your hide, West Virginia nickels-and-dimes you to death — as the old saying goes.

Here is what I do not understand:

West Virginia is one of the poorest states in America. Maryland is one of the richest states in America. Both houses of the legislature in both states are controlled by Democrats (a situation that’s never likely to change), and they usually have a Democrat in the governor’s office.

However ... although it may take considerable ingenuity, West Virginia generally finds a way to live within its means and balance its budget.

Maryland does not — or at least it hasn’t since Owe-Malley took over. He inherited a surplus; what happened to it depends entirely upon whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.

The whining, tantrums, threats, warnings of Apocalypse and finger-pointing associated with the Maryland General Assembly’s recent avoidance of the Doomsday Budget were fascinating to observe.

On the other hand, what these fiscal shenanigans are doing to Maryland’s local and county governments and their citizens (particularly in this largely ignored end of the state) is horrifying.

The process reminds me of the time a friend asked me to keep her company on the day she had her beloved old dog put to sleep:

It was heartwrenching to watch and left me with a vague feeling of injustice that I still can’t quite get a handle on. Worst of all, there was nothing I could do to make it any better.

Unfortunately, we now live in an age in which our legislators seem to be elected not for their ability to lead or govern, but on the basis of what they give us.

I’d rather live in an age in which we tell them how much of our money we’re willing to trust them with ... and they’d better use it wisely, or we’ll find somebody who can.

But no — and for that we ultimately have nobody to blame but ourselves.